A Brief History of Problematic Political Miniseries

Chuck Todd was on Morning Joe today explaining why he thought NBC's Hillary Clinton miniseries was a "total nightmare" for NBC's news enterprise, adding to the chorus of people who think this is a bad idea for various reasons. But this isn't the first controversial political series to hit the small screen.

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Chuck Todd was on Morning Joe today explaining why he thought NBC's announced Hillary Clinton miniseries was a "total nightmare" for NBC's news enterprise, adding to the chorus of people who think this is a bad ideas. But now the Diane Lane-as-Hillary vehicle (yes, Diane Lane—that's another problem) joins a long line of politically themed-miniseries that have endured various travails. Here's a brief history.

The Reagans

You'd think a miniseries about the Reagans airing long after they'd left the White House wouldn't cause too many problems. Alas. CBS's 2003 production, which starred James Brolin as Ron and Judy Davis as Nancy, incited the ire of conservatives who thought the miniseries inaccurately unfairly portrayed the Gipper. The RNC even asked to have a group of historians and friends review the series. Ultimately, CBS—claiming the miniseries did "not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans"—pulled it and dumped it on Showtime before Showtime was the flashy home of shows like Homeland.

Talked about moment: Reagan saying of the AIDS crisis: "They that live in sin shall die in sin." The line was not in the Showtime version.

The Kennedys

About seven years later and on the other side of the political coin, History's The Kennedys caused a commotion. As Dave Itzkoff wrote in the New York Times, the controversy started before the movie was even shot, with Ted Sorensen among others complaining that the film was wrong and wrongheaded. (For what it's worth the miniseries was executive produced by Joel Surnow, a Limbaugh buddy.) The miniseries was ultimately cancelled by The History Channel—with the Kennedy family pressuring them to do so— but made its way onto the Reelz in 2011.

Talked about moment: Sexytimes with the Kennedys. In one scene, also taken out of the final version, JFK says: "If I don’t have some strange ass every couple of days, I get migraines."

The Path to 9/11

The Path to 9/11 is perhaps a standout among these miniseries, simply because of the fact that it made it onto the air on its intended network. The miniseries purported to be based on the 9/11 commission report, but Jesse McKinley wrote in the New York Times before it aired in 2006 that "several liberal blogs were questioning whether ABC’s version was overly critical of the Clinton administration while letting the Bush administration off easy." Even after it aired, the series' writer charged, according to the Los Angeles Times, that an ABC exec revealed that the Clinton machine was trying to block the DVD release to protect Hillary's candidacy.

Talked about moment: Clinton officials cancel a mission that would have captured bin Laden.

Of course, it's not like all political TV enterprises have gone poorly—HBO, for instance, emerged relatively unscathed from Recount and Game Change—but this Hillary mini looks like on the same path as the disasters that have come before it. Todd explained there is no way for NBC News to come out clean, even though its a distinct entity from NBC's entertainment division: "Whether it’s negative because it’s the Clinton people are upset that it’s too tough on them, or negative because the Republicans think it’s this glorification of her—no matter what, only we are going to own it, because people are going to see the peacock and NBC and see NBC News and think: ‘Well, they can’t be that separate.'"

NBC doesn't really seem to have any artistic intentions in this game other than a desire to cash in on the burgeoning miniseries craze on network television and the likely furor around Hillary that will engulf the lead up to the 2016 election. For the oft-lampooned network they win as long as they get this thing on the air and get the viewers to tune in, but the road there could be rocky.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.